Esther Tyson header

Cambodia, FFI

Cambodia, 2013

‘When art imitates life, and life imitates art’

‘Esther Tyson, member of the Society of Wildlife Artists, has recently returned from a working trip in Cambodia. Esther sketched aspects of two Fauna & Flora International programmes and was also Artist-in-Residence for Song Saa Private Island. In the lead up to World Ocean’s Day on 8 June, Esther shares some of her diary with us, in what was to become a memorable cultural and artistic exchange’. Lindsey Sandbrook.

A small number of my trip photographs are to the right, click on any to see the next.

Sihanoukville is so much bigger than I expected. I imagined a small village on the coast of Cambodia with tin roof huts, small business and limited communication to the outside word. Instead, the tuk tuk took me though the bustling streets of a thriving city port southwest of the capital Phnom Penh. I'd arranged to meet Saran (Song Saa's Community Engagement Officer) just outside the harbour, in a little food and drink area, before catching the boat over to Sala Song Saa, Koh Rong Island, and my home for the next 5 days.

Typical! Brit abroad and unfamiliar with fast boats, the wind just took my hat and it’s gone! It didn't take long to sink either. I'm now sitting on the back seat of a speeding boat holding a striped towel over my head (to keep the sun at bay) causing much hilarity amongst the captain and his deck hands.

Other than the sound of insect life and frogs, all is quiet my first night in the fishing village. I'm staying in a simple wooden house with a couple of rooms, a classroom and sitting area and by the looks of my itinerary, will be the hub of the education world this week. It’s 32 degrees out and I'm thankful for the two windows that draw a slight breeze through my mosquito net.

I met the Song Saa Sea Turtles today, the kids! Saran organised a coral reef education workshop, a movie show and snorkelling trip to Coral Island geared around understanding the marine food chain. Jelena (the dive pro on Song Saa) joined us late morning with 10 pairs of fins, masks and snorkels and we boarded the long boat and headed out. The children took to snorkelling like fish to water and it was a privilege being wedged like a sardine as I guided my group around this beautiful reef. We had storms the last two nights so the water was unexpectedly clear, amazing visuals to a depth of 4 meters and the sunlight revealed an incredible range of colour in the coral and fish.

The Fishery Committee, Patrol team and local Fishermen met for their Education Workshop today. Once again, a movie show and marine food chain exercise in the classroom then it was the guys turn for a trip out to the reef and a snorkel. Their apprehension was palpable and took me back to my early dive training in Dorset. We took them through the basics of snorkelling and waded into the warm waters, what a giggle! One of the team put his head under the water, took one look at the reef and broke into hysterics. Wearing a mask, laughter doesn't work underwater! Laughter lines create waterways and in a moment your mask is full, you’re coughing and spluttering before you know it! He was so amazed he couldn't stop chuckling and it gave us all the giggles! I'd say two of the team really got to grips with snorkelling and spent a couple of hours exploring whilst the others one by one returned to the beach where lessons continued.

There is a compost loo at the far end of the garden and now a diddy scorpion for company!

I spent today drawing, sitting out back of one of the fishermen’s homes, beside the river. Got quite an audience at one point and managed to disperse the kids by handing over my binoculars! Apparently bins are a new thing to them and they spent the rest of the morning taking turns watching their neighbours, shouting back and fore across the river. One of the children joined me and sat silently, full of concentration as he drew a brightly coloured house and boat with crayons.

One of the jobs of the Patrol team is to raise awareness among fishermen at sea, talking about marine protected areas and about the proposed Marine Fisheries Management Area. Marine Protected Areas that are well designed and managed and are widely believed to be one of the most effective means for combating over exploitation and degradation of marine habitats and thus believed to improve the resilience of marine ecosystems and coastal communities who depend on them.

My final day with the Song Saa Sea Turtles and some of the local fishermen donated squid, crab and dogfish from their night’s haul to provide us with something to draw. It didn't take long to rearrange the room after class with a large roll of paper through the centre of the room with all the creatures on display. I set the ball rolling with a large crayon drawing of the dogfish and the children filled the roll! Small drawings large drawings line drawings and full of colour, a hive of activity for the rest of the morning as they looked in detail, at the shape, colour, texture of the catch before them.

There was a massive storm tonight, hope it clears by tomorrow!

I arrive on Song Saa Private Island having had a week of clear waters and beautiful clear skies on Koh Rong… now that I'm due to begin my marine work it is dull, cloudy, overcast and grey! Still... the water is 32 degrees so let’s just see what we have here.

It is so good to be back in the water and despite the lack of sun the reef is like an ice cream store with all its assorted corals. It's a smaller reef than the one we explored around Coral Island but no less spectacular in marine life.

Just been exploring the waters to the left of the restaurant and swam right into a swarm of jellyfish! After the initial panic of ‘oh this is going to hurt’ it’s apparent these guys don't sting, thank goodness! Regardless, it took my breath away for a moment and then I go and swim through the second swarm. Time to get out!

Back in the water and the sea is clear, the water is warm and there is no sign of jelly, phew! The fishing village got me thinking about the structure of the restaurant here. All the village buildings are on stilts I’d like this to feature in the work I'm going to produce. Once under the board walk I follow its track until I'm beneath the restaurant. Its wooden legs are covered in oyster shells, the Diadema Urchins have found their way up here too?!

Further along and the sea bed shallows under the footings then slopes away beyond visibility. Large fish hunt between the pillars, the shoal spooks me coming from the depths one moment and the next gone…

Esther Tyson's artwork